Gone Native

Song From The Forest Soundtrack
A Documentary Film by Michael Obert. Selected Recordings of Bayaka Music by Louis Sarno.

Need an interesting solution to the problem of market saturation? Try marketing your charming recordings of an African tribe and their wild locality not as ‘World Music’ but as the soundtrack to a film about… a white American gone native. Add a varnished cover, fit for a mid-budget Hollywood project, copious and illuminating annotation along with rich illustration and bingo: something to compete with the eye-catching graphic design and oddball eccentricity of labels like Sublime Frequencies and Nonesuch Explorer.

I’m making this sound far more cynical than it actually is of course, and it’s purely a result of my own petty envy at the remarkable life experience of said American, the recording artist and film subject Louis Sarno, who tracked down the Bayaka pygmies after hearing them on the radio, then went on to become the only outsider (let alone westerner) to be inducted into the tribe. Since then he has amassed over 1500 hours of recordings, including rituals, musical performances and more personal mementos. His insider’s view might be seen as endowing ‘authenticity’, but it’s one with which we can identify from afar, given our awareness of issues such as poaching and land encroachment around the world.

In many senses these recordings – captured over the past thirty years of Sarno’s tribal residence – depict a disappearing world: that of the environment violated by greed, but also of the microcosm of tradition within the tribe itself. Several performances contain feature instruments or styles moribund (‘Geedal’), merely remembered (‘The Flutes We Hear No More’) or somewhat degenerated in the passing of time (‘Ye-yi Greeting’). Several juxtapose the human voice with the sounds of birdcalls, insects chirping and buzzing to highlight the immediacy of the environment for tribal life. Sound quality is mostly crisp, thanks to Mr. Sarno’s many hours of recording practice.

Most remarkable perhaps are rhythm-driven performances like ‘Earth Bow’ – a device consisting of a sapling bent over a hole, which delivers the kind of deep, resonant twang techno producers go crazy for – as well as on the tree and water drums (fairly self-explanatory designations), in the latter of which Sarno flags up the rhythmic superiority of the female drummers (it being one of the few instruments women are permitted to play), raising a gender-political message that has a more vocal outlet in ‘Lingboku Celebration’ – a song satirising male conservativeness, which is notable for its sexual explicitness.

Being the subject of the film, it’s fitting that Sarno gets to tell his own story halfway through. And quite a story it is: he relates the vivid sights, sounds, smells and tastes (the idea of raw honey is making me ravenous) he has encountered in the forest, all of which seem to electrify the senses as much as our Tesco and Primark-homogenised culture dulls ours. I suppose it’s rather easy to romanticise such things though. Louis Sarno found a life changing experience at the end of his quest, while Colonel Kurtz found ‘the horror’. We all have our own calling – not necessarily as colourful or adventurous as Sarno’s – but dispatches such as this [1. Including the film I’ve yet to see.] might at least embolden us to pay heed that there is a world elsewhere.